In parliament >> Applying EU law

9th December 2011

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Chris Davies MP asks whether the EU's bark is worse than its bite

UK Europhobes tell us repeatedly that we are being “pushed around” by Brussels, but I remember a meeting with farmers complaining to a commissioner that France was refusing to accept British beef even though it was by then BSE free.

“I agree with you,” he said, “I am taking firm action. I have written a letter to the French government.”

The farmers were not impressed, but the commissioner responded: “I do not have an army or a police force. We have legal processes, and the first step is an exchange of letters.” If that is what being “pushed around” by Brussels means, it doesn’t sound too terrifying.

EU environment laws work best when they come in the shape of regulations, which are binding on all. Companies know that products placed on the EU market that are not compliant could be banned, risking huge losses, so they comply.

It’s much harder to get governments to properly apply Directives that may give them considerable room for interpretation.

The European Commission’s enforcement process is cumbersome but it usually gets close to the objective in the end.

The process starts with encouragement, but for the few governments that do not eventually get the message it ends up in the European Court of Justice, and the risk of an unlimited fine. Greece had to pay €20,000 a day for several months until it stopped a waste tip on Crete leaching into the Mediterranean, for example.

Knowing that the enforcement process can take years, governments frequently play for time. I’ve often wondered why a decade ago Britain ended up with “fridge-mountains” after the EU agreed that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) should be removed from the foam insulation.

Why didn’t we just ignore the rule until the recycling facilities were in place? We would only have been sent a letter.


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